Open Letter to Matt Bevin

NOTE: This letter was originally sent to Governor Matt Bevin in January of 2016. Since that time, the Harrells have removed their children from JCPS schools, but are committed to continuing to improve public education. The Harrells never received a response from the Governor.

Dear Governor Bevin,heather

I am a parent of three boys, two of which are students in the Jefferson County Public Schools.  I wanted to share with you some of my understanding, concerns and perceptions as you advocate for charter schools.  From the perspective of a parent, Jefferson County Public Schools has essentially created a charter school system.  The district has attempted to create “choice” for parents and, laudably, to maintain diversity in student populations.  The means by which such choice has been created is the proliferation of magnet programs.  The consequence of such choice is that the schools must compete to get students; even neighborhood schools compete with each other and magnet programs.  Furthermore, parents are confronted with a confusing, time consuming process in “picking” a school for our children, a process that only leads to the desired outcome with much luck and effort.  From the perspective of a parent, this competition between schools has not bettered schools in general (and I think the numbers support this perception); the “good schools” are still the “good schools” and those with poor test scores remain poorly performing (I know there are a few exceptions, but this seems to be the general trend).

Students whose parents have the time, energy, English skills, and know how to navigate this confusing system and are lucky enough to get the desired result do well.  For the students who lack such resources at home, or for the unlucky families who cannot afford to leave the system, they end up at schools that are failing.  Those schools “fail” not because of the teachers, but because of many other factors, including the negative circumstances and challenges that the majority of those students bring to the classroom.

If JCPS is already a model of competition as a means to improve schools, I question how adding additional competition that will drain funds away from the public schools will improve the performance of schools in general.  While in other communities, charter schools may introduce competition, JCPS already has such competition and it seems to have demonstrated limited, if any, improvement in our school system.  Regardless of the setting in which we introduce charter schools, gains will be limited until we actually address the primary determinants of educational outcomes for children – the socioeconomic factors created by our laws, policies and social practices that shape the lives of students outside of the classroom.  While my views in no way advocate that schools should not do the best they possibly can, most teachers and administrators in JCPS are trying to do that with ever dwindling resources and increasing demands.

In other words, it seems to me, at least in some settings, competition between schools is far from the primary determinant in educational outcomes and therefore unlikely to better education.  I would suggest that we look to JCPS experience and the experiences of other communities with charter schools to determine where school competition actually succeeds in improving the education and success (not just test scores) of all students in the district and where competition reinforces the distinction between the haves and the nave-nots.  In other words, perhaps charter schools are more successful in some communities because of characteristics of those communities which could be identified; perhaps JCPS-style models of competition are successful in certain settings or can be implemented in different ways so as to allow for improved education for all students without draining funds from our public school systems.

Though I started this letter solely to share my concerns about charter schools, particularly in Jefferson County, I have realized that like so many issues, exploration of concerns, solutions and experiences related to the issue reveal common threads.  As parents and constituents, we should expect evidence based legislation, particularly with regards to educating our children.  JCPS seems like a great place to gather data with regards to school choice and competition as a means to improve school performance.  I urge you to study our district to determine when, where, and if charter schools will improve education in Kentucky.

As for our family, we have been fortunate to be in a magnet program and hope to stay in the school for the near future.  Our concerns with regards to our children’s education relate not to the quality of teachers or administration, but rather to district and state policies which are not evidence based and are harmful to our children’s development.  Each day is a balancing test for us – the value we all gain from engaging in the public school system versus the harms imposed on our children by the testing; unreasonable educational standards; short lunches; insufficient time for physical activity; limited access to music, art and other enrichments; unreasonable instructional hour requirements; and the removal of play from early education.  Most troublesome is that these policies and requirements create a stressful environment and shapes a distaste for learning in too many of our students, and in our children too.  From our perspective, addressing standards, testing, physical activity and breaks during the school day for meals, play, etc would do far more to improve education than introducing more competition to a system which is already saturated with such competition.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

Heather Harrell

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